On May 21, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Russian President Vladimir Putin for an informal summit in Sochi, where the two leaders upgraded this traditionally close relationship to a “special privileged strategic partnership.” Despite this announcement, developments in West Asia, Afghanistan, and bilateral defence ties between India and Russia have raised questions about the future health of the partnership. To discuss these issues and the future of the India-Russia relationship, Brookings India hosted an expert roundtable discussion led by Nandan Unnikrishnan, Senior Fellow and head of the Eurasia Studies program at the Observer Research Foundation, and chaired by Shivshankar Menon, Distinguished Fellow at Brookings and India’s former National Security Advisor and Foreign Secretary.
The India-Russia bilateral relationship has a long history and a broad international context, amid the evolution from a unipolar order to a possible multipolar structure. This uncertainty is resulting in all great powers, including India and Russia, attempting to hedge and prepare for all possibilities. Given this international context, the changing India-Russia relationship is not only affecting bilateral ties but also India’s relationships with the United States, China, Afghanistan, and other countries.
Traditionally the India-Russia bilateral relationship has been based on multiple pillars of common interest. Both India and Russia share a similar worldview, based on a multipolar order. They have also had a strong economic relationship in the past. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was India’s biggest trading partner and supplier of defence technology. There were also strong people-to-people exchanges, with many young Indian professionals being educated in Russia.
While there has been some improvement in economic relations between India and Russia in the last two years, the relationship today essentially hinges only on military technological cooperation, where Russia supplies about 60% of India’s imported military equipment by value. This dependence on military technical cooperation to sustain the bilateral relationship might be problematic in the long run based on India’s economic growth projections and doubts about Russia’s ability to satisfy Indian demands.
The India-Russia relationship has been under some strain in the last years. There was a growing perception in the Russian establishment that India was growing closer to the United States. The informal summit in Sochi was an attempt to address this perception. On the other hand, it is not just Russia that is worried about the India-U.S. relationship. India too has concerns about Russia’s growing relationships with China and Pakistan, and its contentious relationship with Washington.
After the Ukraine crisis in 2014, the Russia-China relationship has become stronger, with important implications for India and other rising powers. Both Russia and China are being challenged by the United States, politically, economically, and strategically. While China has been able to sustain competition with the United States, a weak Russian economy is increasingly making Russia dependent on China for economic cooperation. This dependency can further extend to political and strategic domains over time. Also tied to Russia’s growing relationship with China is its increasingly close relationship with Pakistan, causing concern in the Indian strategic community. India is most concerned about the open hostility between United States and Russia on various issues.
The India-Russia relationship has been under some strain in the last years. There was a growing perception in the Russian establishment that India was growing closer to the United States. The informal summit in Sochi was an attempt to address this perception.
Russia’s position on areas of tension in the world, whether it is Ukraine, Georgia, West Asia, Afghanistan or North Korea, appears to openly challenge U.S. predominance. This tension catches India between its growing strategic partnership with the United States and its dependence on Russia for defence technological needs. Despite these strains, a strong India-Russia relationship is important because it gives extra manoeuvring space for both countries vis-a-vis other actors. Consequently, both India and Russia need to explore other avenues of cooperation, beyond defence technical cooperation to strengthen this relationship.
From the Indian perspective, there is scope for improvement in trade between Russia and India if the international North-South corridor through Iran, and the Vladivostok-Chennai sea route can be operationalised. India can benefit from hi-tech cooperation with Russia in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, outer space and nanotechnology. It can also cooperate with Russia on upgrading its basic research and education facilities. There is scope for growth in the energy sector, beyond mutual investments. Mutual benefits in trade of natural resources such as timber, and agriculture can also be harnessed.
On the strategic side and economic side, there seems to be a realisation in Russia about its over-dependence on China. This is particularly difficult because of the large Chinese market, not just for Russian energy exports, but also for Russian military exports. However, Putin has made a conscious attempt to energise his relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Russia has also been trying to develop ties with Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries through the East Asia Summit and ASEAN. Given India’s long-term association with these countries, India can help Russia in navigating these relationships.
Unnikrishnan also spoke to Dhruva Jaishankar at Brookings India separately about the future of the India-Russia relationship. Watch the video:
Yamini Sharma, a research intern, contributed to this report